City Beat and Arts & Entertainment Editor
SARATOGA SPRINGS — It was born of a community’s compassion on Christmas Eve in 2013, in the aftermath of tragedy that claimed as victim one of its own. On Valentine’s Day it received a gift of permanence that promises to help provide a successful continuum of care for its survivors.
Local business owner Ed Mitzen, and his wife Lisa, announced Tuesday they will pay for the costs of a new Code Blue homeless shelter to be built on the current Shelters of Saratoga property on Walworth Street. Shelters of Saratoga, or S.O.S., oversees the Code Blue program, and siting an emergency shelter at a permanent location has been a high priority following a series of temporary shelter venues that have been staged at St. Peter’s Parish Center, the Salvation Army building and the Soul Saving Station Church.
“This phenomenal gift solves the consistent challenge we have faced over the last few years of providing a permanent home for Code Blue,” said Michael Finocchi, executive director of S.O.S. Initial plans call for a two-story building with a large kitchen, laundry room, men’s and women’s sleeping rooms, multiple showers and bathrooms, a large storage area for donated food and clothing, and a small Code Blue office. Local firms Bonacio Construction and the LA Group will be involved in the development of the building and both have agreed to forego any profits to keep the costs as low as possible. Design plans will be evaluated by the city’s Land Use boards. Finocchi said ideally, the new building will consist of 6,500 square feet of space and house about 50 beds. The hope is that the new building will be operational by Nov. 1.
Need for Shelter is Great
The average number of overnight guests this season – 41 per night – is an all-time high, as is the number of openings – 89 nights as of Valentine’s Day – already surpassing all previous season totals, with presumably more to come til warmer climes prevail. The shelter initially opened when temperatures dipped below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Earlier this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order which directed emergency shelters to operate when temperatures dropped below 32 degrees.
The need for a city emergency shelter during the winter months is great. Between 2007 and 2015, although homelessness nationwide decreased by 11 percent, it increased in New York, rising by 41 percent, according to the 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Between 2014 and 2015 alone, New York State’s homeless population jumped by 7,660 - the largest increase in the nation for the one-year period.
The Code Blue Saratoga program was born from the tragic death of Nancy Pitts. The 54-year-old mother of two sought shelter on a Williams Street porch during a frigid December night in 2013. She was discovered by police the next morning. Within days of the homeless woman’s death, a cooperative partnership between then mayor-elect Joanne Yepsen, non-profit organizations, and members of the community was initiated and a plan set in motion to site an emergency shelter in the city.
“The proposed plan gives Code Blue a permanent home, as opposed to its current revolving status, which will be critical to ending homelessness in Saratoga Springs,” said Yepsen, who also publicly thanked Ed and Lisa Mitzen “for making our long-term goal a reality.”
Ed Mitzen, owner of the marketing agency Fingerpaint Marketing, grew his local health care ad agency Palio Communications from a five-person shop to a multimillion-dollar company with nearly 200 employees. In 2006, he sold the company and two years later founded Fingerpaint Marketing, eventually setting up shop on Broadway in a building formerly occupied by Borders Books and Music. In an interview with this reporter in 2015, Mitzen said philanthropy is a core value. “We’re blessed and fortunate to have good jobs and good careers and we feel a tremendous sense of pride to be able to give back to the community,” Mitzen said. “We’re always looking for ways we can help other people.” The donation includes costs for the building and amenities, such as appliances, although operating costs will come from other means. S.O.S. currently operates two other buildings on its property as well as a twice-a-week “drop-in” center which draws 20 to 22 people each day. Finocchi said having the Code Blue shelter on the same grounds will be beneficial. “Having Code Blue in close proximity to the case-managed shelters maximizes the opportunity for Shelters of Saratoga to provide the full continuum of homeless services to the individuals we serve,” Finocchi said. “This project will allow us to more easily connect homeless individuals with the support services they need, including case management, mental health counseling, and alcohol and drug rehabilitation. Our ultimate goal is to get them stable and housed.” Over the past four years, 36 individuals who have used Code Blue services have successfully transitioned into the Shelters of Saratoga case managed shelter.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — In a city known for its horses, it is still a sight to behold: standing about five-and-a-half feet tall, weighing 1,800 pounds and steadied atop four sturdy legs, they represent the city’s most unique police officers.
The Saratoga Springs Police Department initiated the use of a mounted patrol in 2000, following in a long tradition first documented when London’s Bow Street Police established its horse-mounted branch more than 250 years ago. This week, Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen announced one of the longest serving members of Saratoga Springs’ mounted division will be, well, stepping down.
“Jupiter is 23 years old and ready for retirement,” Mathiesen explained. The standard-bred gelding, originally named Jo Jo Geronimo, was donated to the police department in 2003, and has patrolled the city for more than a decade.
Jupiter became the city’s third equine officer, following the initial experiment in 2000 of a horse on loan from the state Park Police, and a 17-hand standard-bred gelding named Of Course I Can - later renamed Zeus- who served the department for three years, until his death as the result of West Nile virus. More recently, Jupiter was joined on the equine staff by the 1,800-pound black Percheron named King Tut. A healthy Standardbred horse will usually live to the age of about 25, and Jupiter’s golden years will be spent in the familiar surroundings of a farm just off Route 29 where the police horses are boarded.
“We have somebody who is going to care for him,” said Assistant City Police Chief John Catone. “He’ll retire and be able to play on the farm with all of his friends.”
Serendipitously, horse owner Charles “Chuck” Harrison on Jan. 30 penned a letter to the city police department, offering to donate his 11-year-old Standardbred, named Most Fun Yet, to the mounted division of the department. “I claimed him back in 2011 and he’s always been a pleasure to be around. I wanted to find a real good home for him,” Harrison said. “He’s a special horse. His personality makes him special and he’s as easygoing as they come. In the barn, we call him ‘Fat Boy,” Harrison laughed. “Now we call him ‘Officer Fat Boy.’
Most Fun Yet had been a frequent competitor at Saratoga Casino Hotel. He was foaled on Feb. 25, 2006 in Thornville, Ohio and sired by Full of Fun. The bay gelding had 223 starts overall - finishing in the money 87 times, winning 19 races outright and earning more than $190,000. “He actually raced until the end of the meet here in December,” said Most Fun Yet trainer Scott Mongeon. “He’s still viable as a race horse and could still race, but he is getting up there in age. Chuck thought it would be better off finding him a home, as long as it’s the right home.“
Most Fun Yet is being readied for training. The process is expected to take four to five weeks and if all goes well, he could be ready to serve by early May. The equine officers are employed in Saratoga Springs year-round and are a visual magnet for area children and out-of-town visitors alike. They patrol the racecourse in the summer, attend special citywide events, and bear witness to the occasional mayhem that can ensue downtown. “During fight calls, if there is a fight between two people, I can put a horse between them and that’s it - the fight’s over,” SSPD mounted patrol officer Glenn Barrett said in 2015.
“Most Fun Yet will be trained and become one of our police horses, and Most Fun Yet will probably have a lot of fun at four o’clock in the morning on Caroline Street,” Commissioner Mathiesen said with a laugh. The city’s newest equine officer, its fifth overall, is expected to undergo a name change prior to being put into service and plans are underway to host a contest among area schoolchildren to rename the horse.
SARATOGA SPRINGS - Four months into her new job, SPAC President Elizabeth Sobol says she is learning the Saratoga Performing Arts Center has a uniqueness all its own.
One factor is the location of the venue - nestled among 2,200 acres in the state park sitting on the cusp of a culturally vibrant city, she says. Another is the relationship forged with other performing arts organizations during the venue’s 50-year existence which continue to deliver everything from the whirring pirouette of the ballet dancer, to the delicate air strike of the conductor’s baton and the amplified clamor of an electric guitar.
“Having traveled all over the world, all over the United States, all over North America and having seen festivals of all kinds, I’m here to tell you there is nothing like this anywhere in the world,” says Sobol, a classically trained pianist. She relocated to Saratoga Springs from Miami Beach last fall and will mark her first season at SPAC this year.
“Thinking about the programming, I listened to community voices about what they wanted to see this summer.”
The spectrum of responses offered an array of varied opinions. “Part of my job has been listening to those voices and creating something cohesive that would speak to different aesthetic desires and visions,” Sobol says.
This year, the New York City Ballet will stage 18 ballets by six different choreographers during their residency, from July 5 to 15. The Philadelphia Orchestra season, from Aug. 2 to Aug. 19, will feature a balance between the new and the traditional and include one piece not performed at SPAC since the 1960s. And the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will return to the Spa Little Theater with six concerts, from Aug. 6 to Aug. 22. The schedule of performers and performance pieces will be publicly released Sunday.
“One thing I wanted to do was also create mini-festivals within a festival. It immerses you in a sound, a narrative and a concept. In dialogue with the Philadelphia Orchestra, we created a mini-Russian festival, a mini-American festival and a mini-French festival. So, if you look across all our programming – the New York City Ballet, the Chamber Music Society and the Philadelphia Orchestra - you’ll see some of the same themes arising.”
Sobol also noted a new series titled “SPAC on Stage” to target young, musical genre-crossing fans and featuring several hundred audience members seated onstage. “What we’re envisioning is an experience that is intimate and extremely visceral and will feature artists unique and different than anything else that has appeared on the SPAC stage."
With pop concert promoter Live Nation, Sobol says there is an ongoing dialogue to maintain the delicate balancing act of scheduling dates at the venue between the pop and classical worlds. A variety of pop concerts have already been announced: Dave Matthews (two solo shows in June, sans band), Train, Nickelback, Dead & Company, and classic rock bills such as Foreigner/Cheap Trick, Rod Stewart/Cyndi Lauper, and Chicago/Doobie Brothers, among them. Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival will be staged June 24-25 and will feature headliners Chaka Khan and the Gipsy Kings, returning artists Jean-Luc Ponty, and Dee Dee Bridgewater, a musical tribute to Ray Charles and more than one dozen other artists.
Responding to recent reports that President Donald Trump may severely cut or altogether eliminate cultural programs that receive federal funding such as the National Endowment for the Arts, Sobol says while concerned about potential cuts to NEA funding for the national well-being, it’s not something that will greatly affect SPAC. “We are being much more strategic about arts funding, but it’s not something that, if it goes away, it’s going to put us in a compromising position.”
*Note, an initial version of this story misstated the number of acres in the Saratoga Spa State Park. The correct number of acres is 2,200.
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Extending the Greenbelt trail and combatting racism. Developing more affordable housing, diversifying the city’s economic portfolio and forging new collaborations with Nashville, Tennessee, and the Land of the Rising Sun are among the mayor’s goals for Saratoga Springs in 2017.
Approximately 250 city residents, business leaders, elected officials, and a handful of political hopefuls considering a future career in city government gathered on Monday night in the Sen. Joseph L. Bruno Meeting Room at the Saratoga Springs City Center, where Mayor Joanne Yepsen delivered the annual State of the City address.
“People are investing in Saratoga Springs and we cut 102 ribbons for new and expanded businesses in the city last year, a symbol of our stable and growing local economy,” said Yepsen, heralding 2016 accomplishments while pointing to a diversification of the city’s economic portfolio to continue to attract small businesses and future entrepreneurs. The mayor noted the appointment of Democrat Francine Vero as the first-ever woman city court judge in the city, while publicly thanking longtime Republican City Court Judge Jim Doern for his service – an appointment perceived as a slight among Doern supporters when announced last month.
Yepsen applauded the ongoing development of the Greenbelt Trail - a 23-mile multi-use trail that will connect city neighborhoods with the downtown district. The city was awarded $1.134 million in state funds – which it will match – as well as $932,000 in federal funding to complete the trail system that will run from the town of Milton border and adjoining an expanded Spa State Park trail system. She also advocated for promoting smart development that includes affordable workforce housing.
“Every day I hear that we are in danger of out-pricing ourselves, right out of our own city. We need to integrate more price points and housing options into our comprehensive development,” Yepsen said. An Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance specifying a percentage of all new development be targeted as “affordable housing” is currently on the table. “l do hope our City Council has the political will to make that ordinance law for the sake of thousands of residents and potential residents,” Yepsen said.
The mayor also noted a “distinctly disturbing problem” that “racism and intolerance may be on the rise here in our city,” according to a report issued by Public Safety Commissioner Chris Mathiesen. Yepsen cited anti-Semitic and racist messages discovered spray-painted on city streets and appearing on at least one local-targeted blog. Yepsen stressed the importance of education about the history of racist policies and the terrible impact it has on innocent people as one measure to combat hate speech, as well as announcing the creation of a Saratoga Springs Human Rights Commission to be charged with unifying positive efforts and providing education and advocacy resources. “We need to stay strong together, to treat each other with kindness and respect, to appreciate our differences, and to build a community where all people are important and treated equally,” Yepsen said. Five members will serve on the core founding group of the commission.
“We must always be inclusive and I think that’s something this community is known for; your acceptance of others in great diversity,” N.Y. Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul remarked during her eight-minute introductory remarks.
It was a topic the mayor also addressed off-script from the stage. “Because of last weekend’s events in our nation, I want to just say something: Our constitutional rights are not Republican rights, they are not Democrat rights, they are the rights held by all Americans and we should honor them above all else,” Yepsen said. “The only rights that should matter to all of us are human rights, because how we treat our fellow human beings defines our community.”
In arts and cultural matters, Yepsen said she visited the Mayor and Arts Commission of Nashville, Tennessee, and is involved in discussions about a plan to establish an exchange program with the Music City. Nashville has a population of more than 600,000 and its legendary music venues include the Grand Ole Opry House, The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Johnny Cash Museum. In October, The Metro Nashville Arts Commission announced its first funding of temporary public art and civic practice projects, following up on its strategic plan of “Crafting a Creative City,” which re-imagines public art as a tool for creative community investment, citizen engagement and neighborhood redevelopment. “Could Saratoga Springs be the New York State designated ‘City of the Arts?’ I think we can,” Yepsen said.
The Spa City which counts Chekhov, Russia as a “Sister City,” is also looking to expand its international partners. “I will be proposing, in the near future, new cultural development and sister cities so we can strengthen our relationships with other cultures and economies, and boost our international reputation and economic opportunities.” Yepsen said. “Japan has expressed some interest and that’s intriguing.”
SARATOGA SPRINGS — A week-long effort by Shelters of Saratoga is currently underway to create a real-time, by-name registry of the homeless population in Saratoga Springs.
The data gathered from surveys, which are voluntary, will provide the community knowledge of the needs of people experiencing homelessness, and the work that needs to be done to end homelessness in Saratoga Springs, organizers say.
“Registry Week” has taken place in 186 other US communities. This is the first time it is being conducted in Saratoga Springs.
Coordinators say the surveys will help agencies connect people to the services they most need, and that the by-name list will provide insight as to specific vulnerabilities for each person, enabling agencies to provide specified care for each person. Meantime, the Code Blue emergency shelter – which is under the auspices of Shelters of Saratoga – has been operating at near full-capacity this winter. Adhering to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mandate that shelters service the homeless when temperatures dip below 32 degrees Fahrenheit has increased Code Blue’s hours of operation.
“It’s been a challenge,” noted shelter director Cheryl Ann Murphy-Parant.
In its two full years of operation, the shelter - previously located at the Salvation Army building on Woodlawn Avenue - was open 85 and 88 nights, respectively, in 2014-15 and 2015-16. Code Blue had averaged 35 nightly guests during the two years and was open a combined total of five times during the daylight hours. This winter season, through Jan. 18, the relocated shelter on Caroline Street has already been open 62 nights and 12 days, and has housed an average of 41 guests – 10 to 12 of which are women. “That (women guests) is a big jump this year,” said Murphy-Parant.
It is anticipated the data gathered from the surveys this week will be compiled in the spring and that a second “registry week” survey will be conducted locally during the warm-season months.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Wednesday’s “Special” City Council meeting lived up to its noteworthy title: so special it was that it never took place.
The meeting was called to discuss funding for the May 30 special election when voters will be asked to decide whether to maintain the status quo of the city’s century-old commission form of governing, or change to a council-manager form.
Following eight months of committee meetings, community surveys and interviews conducted with city employees, the Charter Review Commission - a 15-member group independent of the council - recommended a special election be held on May 30. The group estimates total budget expenses to be about $46,000, in addition to approximately $37,000 in costs associated with a special election. There has been growing disagreement among council members debating the timing and costs of holding a special vote in May, versus placing the issue on an extension of the standard November ballot, which is when all five council seats will also be up for vote. Those in favor of the May date say adding a Charter vote to an already busy city election season would muddle matters. City Mayor Joanne Yepsen and Commissioner Chris Mathiesen were the two lone members attending Wednesday’s meeting, leaving the board one member short of a quorum, and forcing the 17 people and two council members in attendance to leave City Hall without discussing the matter.
Commissioner Anthony “Skip” Scirocco issued a statement following the cancellation of the meeting to say after “it had been indicated that both Commissioner Madigan and Commissioner Franck would not be in attendance,” he also would not be attending. “I feel it only fair that when voting on an important issue that impacts all city residents, and our future as a city, that all members of the council are in attendance.”
Commissioner Michele Madigan said in a statement, that after learning Commissioner John Franck “would not be attending the meeting for professional reasons,” she contacted the mayor’s office to ask the meeting be cancelled because she wanted all five members of the City Council to be present to discuss and vote on the budget amendments from the Charter Review Commission. Some in attendance remarked after the cancelled meeting that council members opposed to a change in the form of governing were using delay tactics.
The City Council has until February 20 to approve the request to fund the Commission’s expenses as well as the special election; if it fails to do so, it is believed the mayor has the ability to approve the amount of funding sought to defray expenses for the Commission’s budget and for the special election.
Under the council-manager form of government, the city council approves the budget, determines the tax rate and focuses on the community’s goals, major projects, and long-term considerations such as community growth, land use development, capital improvement plans, capital financing, and strategic planning. The council would be charged with hiring a highly trained non-partisan, professional city manager to carry out these policies with an emphasis on effective, efficient, and equitable service delivery. Managers serve at the pleasure of the governing body and can be fired by a majority of the council. Among the Commission’s other recommendations are: increasing the number of council members from five to seven and terms of service from two years to four years putting a system in place to ensure members come from all corners of the city, and giving council members confirmation power over all mayoral appointments to city boards and judicial appointments. The next regularly scheduled meeting of the City Council is Feb. 7.
SARATOGA SPRINGS – Ten new buildings, a five-story hotel, more than 400 residential units and nearly 30,000 square feet of retail space may soon rise from the rustic landscape of the city’s west side.
The city’s Land Use boards are evaluating two projects that seek to develop a stretch of vacant land from the south end of the Saratoga Springs train station to Washington Street/ Route 29, and just west of West Avenue.
“You are looking at significant development,” said Bradley Birge, administrator of planning and economic development for Saratoga Springs.
The Station Park project, which would be built out over five phases, calls for two buildings to be dedicated as a mixed-use space with each building housing 36 residential units, and a total of 22,000 square feet of retail space. The 72 residential units would be for-sale condominiums, said Lou Giardino, chief development officer of the project for Top Capital of New York. The Rochester-based firm has secured a purchasing option on the 17 acres of the land where it would develop the $80 million project, if the city grants its approval.
Additional development would include two buildings - each providing 57 units for senior housing and 33 units for senior assisted care, a 110-to-120 unit five-story hotel and spa, a pool and fitness center, and a free-standing building with an additional 6,200 square feet of retail space. Nearly 600 parking spaces would span across the location to cater to residents, retail workers and shoppers.
The second proposal, submitted by the Missouri-based Vecino Group seeks to develop one three-story building and three four-story buildings to stand just east of the Station Park proposal and near the Washington Street post office. The 160 apartment units contained within seem to fall in the “workforce,” or “affordable” housing categories, although detailed information has yet to be released and phone calls made to the Vecino Group and their local partners at the LA Group that sought comment about the project proposal were not returned.
“They’re two separate and very independent projects coming forward at the same time,” said Birge. “They don’t come as a partnership, but we’ve tried very hard to encourage them to collaborate and at least share their plans (with each other) so that we can approach them in a comprehensive manner.”
“We’ve met with the Vecino Group and support their project,” Giardino said.
According to city officials, two additional firms are also currently readying proposals for further development in the immediate vicinity of the Station Park project, although the size and scope of those two potential projects are not currently known as those plans have yet to be submitted to the city.
The west side build-up is intentional and by design, said city Mayor Joanne Yepsen.
“When we updated our Comprehensive Plan – the first new one in the city in 14 years – we identified West Ave as a growth area, along with Weibel Avenue and South Broadway,” the mayor said. “We’ve also been proactive in looking for a partner who would be involved in affordable housing.” The Vecino Group project would seem to answer some of the city’s affordable housing needs.
The West Avenue corridor has witnessed an increase in development over the past dozen years. In 2004, a $6 million renovation project was conducted at the Saratoga Springs Train Station. Three years later, The YMCA of Saratoga opened its $10 million, 75,000-square-foot community and fitness center 1/4 mile south of the Saratoga Springs Junior-Senior High School. And in 2009, Empire State College completed its Center for Distance Learning facility at its West Avenue property, located a few yards from the college’s graduate studies and international programs building, which was built in 2004. s
SARATOGA SPRINGS —Drawing inspiration from everyone from Bob Dylan to Raymond Chandler, Tom Waits has merged song and monologue into a distorted vaudevillian kaleidoscope for the past 40 years.
This weekend, Michael Eck hosts an evening of Waits’ songs performed by Capital District artists. Show headliner Sean Rowe - known internationally for his powerful original songs and raw baritone voice – will be joined by blues man Mark Tolstrup, literary word-slinger Thomas Dimopoulos, and Elrod, Motherjudge, McWatters - a powerhouse trio assembled specifically for The Heart of Saturday Night. Also performing is Girl Blue - the latest breakout from Albany’s fertile new music scene – who will stage her Caffè Lena debut in advance of her show at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom.
Host Michael Eck will join in with the beautiful maladies, singing between acts. Waits’ gruff voice imagery and roots rock catalog has inspired generations of musicians.
The Waits bio: “By turns tender and poignant, to strange and twisted, his songs tend to explore the dark underbelly of society as he gives his uniquely human voice to adventurers both romantic and mercenary, drifters, con artists and those forgotten characters on the fringe and in the fray.”
The Heart of Saturday Night: Songs of Tom Waits will be staged 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21 at Caffè Lena. Doors open 30 minutes before showtime. Desserts, light fare, FTO coffee, beer & wine will be offered. General Admission is $20, café members: $18, and student/ child: $10. Call 518-583-0022, or go to: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2724524